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Commercial Blueberry Feasibility Study

Commercializing blueberries in rural southeast Alaska represents a potential source of cash revenue in areas that were previously clearcut logged for timber. SEAWEAD secured a grant from the National Forest Foundation (NFF) Community Capacity for Land Stewardship program to research the feasibility of commercializing blueberries for benefits across the entire triple bottom line.

This is a photo taken from a drone that provides an oblique aerial view of a potential commercial blueberry patch. The photo was taken early in the Spring before leaf-out, which makes it easy to tell the difference between the young conifers (bright green) and low shrubs like blueberry bushes (reddish brown).

This is a photo taken from a drone that provides an oblique aerial view of a potential commercial blueberry patch. The photo was taken early in the Spring before leaf-out, which makes it easy to tell the difference between the young conifers (bright green) and low shrubs like blueberry bushes (reddish brown).

If feasible, commercializing blueberry production on previously clearcut timber lands could represent an example of “transition” beyond old-growth logging to a more diversified natural resource economy that truly accounts for cultural, ecological and economic values. For example:

Social Values – Blueberries are an essential wild food resource that has been gathered in our region for thousands of years. The boom in commercial logging has led to a vast expansion of accessible lands that are productive for blueberries and rural communities have adapted to rely on this resource for filling an important niche in the household food budget. Blueberry picking is a traditional, cultural activity that improves mental and physical health by getting folks outdoors and active, often together as families. These are all important socio-cultural values that can be provided as a by-product of managing a small fraction of the lands that were clearcut for timber as highly productive blueberry patches.

Ecological Values – One of the consequences of clearcut logging is a forest successional path that in many areas includes multiple generations of very low productivity in the understory, which reduces habitat quality for deer, bears, birds, small mammals, etc. This is due to the fact that clearcut regenerated conifer stands often grow back to have closed forest canopies that do not allow enough light to reach the forest floor for groundcover plants and understory shrubs like blueberries to germinate. Pre-commercial thinning can mitigate this impact to some degree but it comes with its own caveats of impermeability because of slash loading, and tends to be fairly short-lived because the trees that are left naturally grow to fill in the spaces that thinning created. Maintaining a portion of the actively managed timberlands in an early successional stage that includes dense blueberry production adds a lot of ecological value to the watershed by providing important food and cover resources for small large and small mammals, birds and bugs. These patches can also serve as seed banks that serve as a dispersion vector for getting berry producing vegetation into neighboring stands managed for timber.

picture of Alaska BlueberryEconomic Values – Through support from the NFF, SEAWEAD is working with Grow Southeast and the Hoonah Native Forest Partnership to assess the economic feasibility of commercializing blueberry production, harvest and value-added sales in southeast Alaska. The primary objectives of this feasibility study are to:

  • Experiment with methods and determine costs for blueberry patch cultivation
  • Estimate current and future production capacity for blueberries on public and private lands under multiple management scenarios
  • Assess social acceptance and community capacity for commercializing blueberries in rural communities
  • Develop example products for blueberries, determine costs of production and test market demand
  • Provide a cost benefit analysis that compares managing for blueberries to managing for timber
  • Develop and circulate a start-up guide for prospective blueberry entrepreneurs